(We must say here at the beginning that Paganism should be properly understood as broader category grouping together a diverse collection of specific traditions or religions. It is helpful to consider it as an umbrella-term, but we have also detailed several more specific traditions, which you can find in the menu to the right. Modern forms of Paganism are often referred to as ‘Neo-Paganism.’)
Paganism’s Answers To…
Who Is God?
Paganism is polytheistic and pantheistic. Pagans worship nature as divine, leading many to be “eco-friendly,” deeply concerned about the way their lives affect nature and choosing a lifestyle that will not do harm to the natural environment. Various Pagan traditions worship the divine in different forms—with female, male, or genderless manifestations. There are often several deities worshipped, sometimes grouped into an overarching “god principle” being/presence. None of these deities worshipped are like the evil Biblical “Satan,” contrary to the claims of those who call Pagans “devil worshippers.” The most widely accepted forms of paganism worship the God and Goddess, whose cycle of procreation, birth, and death defines the annual cycle of the Pagan calendar. Goddess worship plays a prominent role in Pagan traditions, leading to an elevated role and esteem for women, and all Pagan religions recognize the female face of divinity.
Where Did We Come From?
Humanity is a part of nature, not separate or set apart from it, and can only be understood within the context of the natural world. Thus the physical characteristics of humans are significant: body, senses, sexuality, pleasure, pain. Humans are both physical beings and a part of the divine—as is nature as a whole.
Why Are We Here?
Most Pagan traditions do not give an explicit explanation for the purpose of life or human nature, but instead encourage individuals to create or seek their own self-meaning, -understanding, and –purpose. Part of being human is accepting the limitations imposed by nature (including death, sickness, loss, etc.) while also struggling against them. Magic, mythology, and ritual give humans insight into nature and thus into the divine and deepen their human experience. They are a part of this struggle with nature, with the divine, and with “the Fates.” Ultimately, each person charts their own course to find purpose and meaning, and can employ any of the ‘helps’ offered by Pagan religions (and nature itself) on their journey, including magic, rituals, science, art, and finding balance with the natural order.
How Do We Know?
There are numerous sacred texts passed down within the various Pagan religions, but there is not one unifying text. Many of the Pagan traditions are passed down from ancient practices and texts from the pre-Christian European religions.
What Do We Have To Do?
Pagan traditions are not typically bound to a particular set of doctrine or liturgy. The opt-accepted principle is “if it harms none, do what you will.” Thus, Pagan religions are often based on experience, with an aim to contact or experience the divine, typically through the natural world around them. Pagan festivals and rituals are often timed by a cycle of eight seasons, highlighted by the solar calendar points of winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. Pagans prefer to practice their rituals, gatherings, and/or celebrations outside whenever possible, and they may practice in solitude or in small groups under various names.
Magic is also an integral part of Pagan religions. Since nature is a manifestation of the divine, and not merely an inanimate or neutral object, signs and patterns can be traced in nature—the earth’s cycles, the behavior of animals, the entrails of a sacrificed animal, etc. These signs from deities are to be examined, but Pagans also believe signs can be asked for and will be granted if it is a genuine request for information. Practices such as casting stones or some other material and seeing the pattern in which they fall are used to receive answers. Seers, mediums, and shamans are other means of connecting to the divine realm. Modern Pagans are quick to emphasize that (unlike many popular portrayals) magic should never be used for unfair personal gain or harm to another.
What’s Going On Today?
Pagan religions have remained present in many tribal societies worldwide. In the Western world, Pagan religions are becoming increasingly popular, particularly with young people. Some have seen this resurgence as a renewal/revival of older Pagan religion, and thus refer to many of the traditions practiced today as Neo-Paganism. Pagans attribute this influx to Paganism’s plurality and acceptance of various practices and walks of life, its inclusion and elevation of women, a reconnection to the natural world in an age of technology, and the reclaiming of what is thought to be an ancestral religion. “To most modern Pagans, in the West, the whole of life is to be affirmed joyfully and without shame, as long as other people are not harmed by one’s own tastes,” and this approach to life is clearly appealing in today’s culture. One set of estimates suggests 50,000-100,000 Pagans in the U.S. and 50,000 to 200,000 in the U.K., but getting an accurate poll number is a challenge and the number of Pagans seems to be continually on the rise. Patheos.com estimates 1 million adherents worldwide.
How Do We Recognize It?
Because of the diversity of traditions within Paganism, there are many symbols connected to the various Pagan streams. Some of these include (and can be seen on the “Pagan Pride Day” emblem on the right):
- Yin/Yang symbol from Daoism — a philosophy of balanced used by many Neopagans.
- A Celtic Cross
- Thor’s Hammer, a symbol used by followers of Asatru
- The Triple Goddess symbol
- They Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol.
- Venus of Willendorf, an ancient Goddess symbol
- The Ankh — another Egyptian symbol.
- The pentacle.
- The Triskelion, a Celtic Pagan symbol
- An image of a Celtic cross
- A Druid symbol representing stone megaliths.
- The Green Man, the consort of the Triple Goddess.
- The Enneagram — a New Age symbol
- The Tree of Life from the Kabala.
What If I Want To Know More?
BBC. “Paganism.” BBC Religions.
PaganFederation.org – This group supports and organizes Pagan individuals and groups in Europe.
Patheos.com – The links along the left sidebar have a host of articles and explanations.
Various streams of Pagan tradition have their own websites, which would be an excellent way to research a particular Pagan religion.
BBC. “Paganism.” BBC Religions.
Carl McColman. “Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence.” Patheos Religion Library: Paganism.
Pagan Federation. “Introduction to Paganism.”
Patheos.com. “Paganism.” Patheos Religion Library.
ReligiousTolerance.org. “Neopagan & Pagan Religious Traditions.”